Small talk; it's a thing that comes so easily to some people, and is completely dreaded by the rest of us. It's why how to "master the fine art of small talk" was one of the first things that popped up when I typed "small talk" into Google. Most of us clearly have an issue. And how can you blame us? It's scary, and awkward
In a piece for Forbes about becoming a better conversationalist, executive strategists Karl Albrecht, Ph.D said, "The secret to being a good conversationalist — one whom people enjoy talking with, and whose company they seek — is very simple. It's talking with them, not to them or at them. It works like magic." And in a piece for Fast Company, productivity expert Laura Vanderkam noted, "Small talk gets a bad reputation. To avoid this allegedly meaningless drivel, people skip networking events. Or, almost as bad, they attend, but talk to the three people they already know." Vanderkam noted that this often leads to actual missed networking opportunities that could be extremely helpful to you.
If you feel like small talk is holding you back professionally, or you just dread the usual rigmarole of a holiday party or neighborhood potluck, here are seven tips for making great small talk that should definitely help.
1. Come Prepared
In a piece for Real Simple, Debra Fine author of The Fine Art of Small Talk, recommended thinking of specific things to talk about before going into any social situation. "As I drive to a party, I try to come up with two or three things to talk about in case the conversation runs dry. If I've met the host before, I try to remember things about her, like her passion for skiing or a charity we're both involved in.” Another tip is to think of a good movie or two you've seen recently, or even just an interesting program you happened to catch on TV the day before.
2. Slow Down And Get Names
In the same Real Simple piece, Cathy Filippini, a member of the Chicago Symphony who spends many evenings making conversation with strangers at events, suggested slowing down and staying present in each moment, especially when it comes to remembering names. Otherwise everyone stands around sipping wine, too embarrassed to ask later. Repeating someone's name when you first hear it and trying to get it right if it is uncommon or difficult for you to pronounce also shows that you're engaged in the encounter, setting the tone for the whole conversation.
3. Ask Questions
A profile in Forbes on Alan Garner's Conversationally Speaking: Tested New Ways to Increase Your Personal and Social Effectiveness, recommended simply asking questions when trying to make small talk. This is especially helpful if you're more introverted by nature and would rather have someone else take center stage in the conversation. Also, at the end of the day, people generally love talking about themselves. A few questions about what someone does, where they're from, or their plans for summer can go a long way in fueling conversation and preventing awkward pauses.
4. Try To Keep Things Open-Ended
This tip from Garner jumps off his last point. When asking questions, he said there's a way to keep the answers one-note (and therefore bad for small talk) or open-ended, which will help the conversation flow. For example, after asking where someone is from, you can follow it up with, "What's your hometown like? Is it really different from here?" This can open the conversation up to a million different paths and new directions.
5. Compliment & Transition
If you're trouble with small talk is just making initial contact with another person to begin with, entrepreneur and lifestyle blogger Kevin Kleitches recommended the "compliment and transition" strategy on a piece for The Huffington Post. "The fact is, everyone loves compliments," Kleitches said. He suggested simply saying you like someone's tie or outfit, and then transition into introducing yourself. I used to have to go to at least one client function a week and can personally vouch for the effectiveness of this one!
6. Make Eye Contact
Kleitches also reminded readers to make eye contact when talking to new people. "The other day I was standing in line at a local coffee shop downtown. As I watched the person in front of me finish making their complicated order, I was astounded. For the entire minute and a half exchange, they managed to completely avoid eye contact with the barista! I made sure to greet the barista with a warm smile and said, 'I hope you're having an awesome afternoon.' The look on her face was priceless," Kleitches said. As a shy person, I personally find direct eye contact really hard to do, so I've learned to stare at the tip of someone's nose when I talk to them for the first time. It appears like you're maintaining great eye contact and feels way less intense.
In a piece for Psychology Today on how to talk to anyone about anything, psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne stressed the importance of listening when you're having a conversation. "Too often when we're meeting someone new, we try to fill the dead moments with chatter about ourselves. Far better for you to listen first, talk second. Of course, someone has to start the conversation, but if you and your companion actually listen to each other and not worry about what to say next, things will flow more naturally," Krauss said.
There's no need to fear small talk. Just be conscious of keeping the conversation open-ended and come equipped with a few standby topics, and you may even start to enjoy it!